by Ivan Fellegi
This article originally appear in the International Statistical Institute
(ISI) Newsletter, Volume 25, No. 73. It is reprinted with permission from
ISI and the author.
I cannot believe that I am writing an article in memory
of Leslie Kish. Just a few months ago I wrote a partly humorous little
speech on the occasion of his 90th birthday celebration. I jokingly asked
why we are making such a fuss about a 90th birthday-after all the Queen
mother just celebrated her 100th. I emphasized that that was something.
He laughed heartily, with the well known "Kish twinkle'' in his eye.
I was struck once again by the extent to which he remained fun-loving,
vibrant, insightful, in fact young in all aspects of behaviour-even if
somewhat limited in his mobility. He told me about his forthcoming partial
knee replacement operation and confided that his doctor told him that
he will either undergo this operation, or he will need to use a walker
to get around. Of course, a walker was not to be contemplated: he needed
to have his full mobility. And mobility, at 90, meant not just getting
around at home but traveling around the world several times a year. He
died due to post-operative complications, having fought for several weeks
with his usual indomitable courage.
In my mind the most characteristic feature of his life
was his incessant giving. One of his last acts of giving was to inspire
his friends and colleagues to establish the Leslie Kish International
Fellows Fund to help students from developing countries obtain training
in population sampling.
Leslie was born in 1910 in Poprad, then part of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire, now in Slovakia. He used to relate how, at various times throughout
history, Poprad belonged to five different countries-an appropriate symbol
of his life motivated by a love of people from all parts of the world.
In 1925, his parents decided to migrate to the United States-together
with hundreds of thousands of other Hungarians. As the great Hungarian
poet Attila Jozsef put it: "one and a half million of our people
staggered out to America.''
Soon after their arrival Leslie's father died. The remaining
family of mother and four children had to decide whether to stay in the
United States. They did, but that meant that the two oldest children,
including Leslie, who was then 16 years old, would have to work in order
to help the others.
Leslie continued his schooling in the evening. By 1937
he was within a year of completing his undergraduate studies. But this
27-year-old was once again ready to sacrifice himself in order to help
improve the world.
He interrupted his studies in order help fight the
fascists in Spain as a member of the International Brigade. His love of
things Spanish, and of people oppressed, stayed with him forever.
At the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 he returned to the
United States and completed his studies at City College of New York and received
a degree in mathematics. He moved to Washington D.C., where he was fortunate
to become a member of pioneering groups, first at the Bureau of the Census and
then at the Department of Agriculture.
He interrupted his career again, to volunteer for service in
World War II. In 1947, he finally moved to the University of Michigan at Ann
Arbor where, together with a small band of enthusiasts, he helped found the
Institute for Social Research. He said later that he never worked as hard as
he did in those early years obtaining his master's and PhD while working full
time but also finding time to teach.
In statistics, he gave us several superb books. These include
the pioneering "Survey Sampling" which became not just a bible
of the field (like the original one, a source of lofty inspiration), but
also a day to day tool of practice. Indeed, much of the world's statistical
system has embedded in it the hundreds of pearls of practical wisdom of
"Survey Sampling.'' In 1988 (when Leslie was a young 78) came "Statistical
Design for Research" which integrated and organized a lifetime of
acquired statistical wisdom. Before, in between, and after came a stream
of articles, lectures and talks. He, sometimes working with others, introduced
the concepts into our thinking and the words into our language of design
effects; he was among the first to explore the issue of inference from
complex samples and developed the innovation now known as balanced repeated
replication (actually with Marty Frankel); was among the pioneers of studying
response errors; became the apostle of rolling samples and censuses; pioneered
controlled selection; formulated the concept of multipurpose designs;
did some of the early work on small area estimation; and so on. But important
as these works are, I think just as crucial were some of his other contributions.
He was one of very few people whose early applied work
made sampling respectable and admired. In addition to having been one
of the founders of what became the Institute for Survey Research at Ann
Arbor, he taught generations of statisticians, both American and foreign
ones through the legendary Summer Program for Foreign Statisticians. After
his formal retirement he continued to do so through lectures in the Summer
Program; through decades of editing or contributing to one or another
of the Question and Answer columns of the Survey Statistician; and through
numerous lectures and consulting assignments. At international meetings
I used to "bump into" his past students and current friends.
One no longer "bumps into" them, because they have become completely
ubiquitous: I wonder how many better known foreign samplers there are
who were not at some point Leslie's students. And I do not want to forget
about two of my favourites among his many contributions. His years of
faithful service to Statistics Canada as a founding member of our Advisory
Committee on Statistical Methods; and his ASA presidential address of
1977 (published in JASA in March 1978)-the best address that any president
of ASA gave in my living memory.
He gave a lot to ISI as well. During the early '70s Leslie and I were
members of a small organizing committee which brought about the International
Association of Survey Statisticians. I can fairly say that 98 per cent
of the work was done by the two of us. Later, he served as a member of
Council, as vice president, and finally president-elect and president.
In effect, Leslie was at the centre of IASS for almost 15 years; from
1971 to 1985. He was also a member of two ISI ad hoc committees: on Statistical
Development in Developing Countries and on ISI's Possible Role in Assessing
the Risks of Nuclear War.
For his accomplishments he received world wide recognition.
Of his dozens of awards I will just single out a few: he received an honorary
doctorate from the University of Bologna on the occasion of its 900th
anniversary; the Samuel Wilks Medal, which is ASA's highest recognition;
the Henry Russell lectureship, which is the highest recognition of University
of Michigan; the title Honorary Fellow of the ISI which I regard as a
kind of Nobel prize in statistics; and perhaps the most personally meaningful
for him: a slew of the highest possible recognitions from Hungary (honorary
doctorate from the largest university in Budapest, honorary membership
in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Officer's Cross of the Order
of the Merit).
Over and above what he gave us in statistics, he gave us
the phenomenon known as "Leslie Kish, a force of nature": the
Spanish Civil War fighter, the philosopher of all things statistical,
the ever young agitator for human rights, raconteur, avid reader, author
of the best annual Christmas letters, loving husband and father, and lifelong
friend to hundreds, perhaps thousands.
When I spoke at his 90th birthday celebration, I ended by saying
that I was hoping to be present at Leslie's really big anniversary-the one the
Queen Mother had just passed. And that was not just a joke: he was so full of
life, it was not only quite possible to contemplate him living to be a hundred,
but rather it was impossible to think about the opposite. Unfortunately, he
did pass away. His final act of giving was to donate his body to medical research.
Wouldn't it be fitting if the resulting work gave us some insight into the human
wonder that was Leslie Kish?